Jordan Peterson’s “Postmodern Neomarxism” Is Pure Hokum

Jordan Peterson’s recent musings on what he calls “postmodern neomarxism” — enriched by hours of careful research on Wikipedia — are a reminder that when it comes to intellectuals, the reactionary right isn’t sending its best.

Jordan Peterson speaking with attendees at the 2018 Young Women’s Leadership Summit, hosted by Turning Point USA, at the Hyatt Regency DFW Hotel in Dallas, Texas, on June 15, 2018. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Earlier this week, in a characteristically bizarre series of tweets, Jordan Peterson published a list of writers he considers “PostmodernNeoMarxists,” which ran as follows: “Ibram X Kendi, Ta-Nahesi-Coates, Robin DiAngelo, Kimberle Crenshaw, bell hooks, Andrea Dworkin, Michel Foucault, Naomi Klein, Catherine McKinnon, Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida and, perhaps above all, Michel Foucault. This list is not complete.”

Anyone possessed of even a passing familiarity with a few of these names is liable to find Peterson’s list quite disparate: Naomi Klein, for example, is probably best known for her work on disaster capitalism. Robin DiAngelo, meanwhile, has worked as a consultant for some of corporate capitalism’s biggest firms. Ta-Nehisi Coates rose to prominence writing about racism in America and making the case for reparations. Michel Foucault (who amusingly appears twice) was a historian and philosopher broadly associated with poststructuralism.

As some have been quick to point out, a few of the figures mentioned are observably not postmodernists (Catherine McKinnon, who Peterson includes, once authored an essay quite literally titled “Points Against Postmodernism”), and it’s debatable how many are even remotely associated with anything resembling “Marxism.” By way of justification, the author offered the following, as if revealing some buried truth to readers: “I made this list public because I’m frequently criticized for being unable to name a single thinker whose thought exists at the nexus of postmodernism and Marxism.” Adding further to the impression of someone engaged in deep thought, Peterson also tweeted out excerpts from the Wikipedia pages on postmodernism and Marxism — excerpts that read just as disparately as his initial list of names.

There’s a quite obvious reason for that, which is that postmodernism and Marxism, as intellectual traditions, are in many respects quite antithetical.

Marxist thought emerged in the context of rapidly industrializing capitalist societies and sought to explain the conditions and trajectories of those societies through analysis of their material contradictions. Taken up by radicals and revolutionaries in the latter part of the nineteenth century, it would go on to animate a wide assortment of twentieth-century political currents seeking to transcend, neutralize, or ameliorate the material inequalities of modern capitalism. At the levels of both critique and prescription, Marxism has thus tended to be structuralist in orientation: premised on the idea that the underlying foundations of human society can be identified and historically situated.

This very characteristic, in fact, was the principal target of many of its most vocal critics throughout the twentieth century — particularly on the Right, which was skeptical of grand theories of history and critiques it deemed totalizing or utopian. It’s admittedly a generalization, but the influence of postmodernist and poststructuralist thinking tended to advance as that of structuralist theories (especially Marxism) retreated, not only in intellectual and academic circles but also throughout the wider public sphere. In stark contrast to Marxism, both postmodernism and poststructuralism are closely associated with skepticism toward historical master narratives and doubt about the possibility (and desirability) of deep foundations in politics, metaphysics, epistemology, and literary criticism.

Peterson, for what it’s worth, did include an addendum elaborating on his own, rather peculiar fusion:

And postmodern neomarxism is the claim that the only truth and grand ethic/narrative is the fact and motivated perpetration of power relations between classes (defined variously: economically, or by race/sex/gender or their “intersection”) . . . and the inevitable and motivated exploitation that results.

As an intellectual sleight of hand, this achieves an awful lot with very little. Taking Peterson’s formulation to its logical conclusion, in fact, it would be possible to include virtually anything in such a definition provided it contained some critique of inequality, hierarchy, or perceived injustice. Thus, in one fell swoop, Jacques Derrida and Robin DiAngelo can be collapsed into the same catchall tendency, as can (presumably) any number of contemporary activist groups or social justice trends concerned with race, gender, class, sexuality, or exploitation in general.

There’s one immediately obvious problem here, which is that many critiques of power relations between “classes” (in Peterson’s sense) clearly predate both postmodernism and Marxism. (Was Mary Wollstonecraft a postmodern neo-marxist when she published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792?) Peterson, of course, does add the caveat “the only truth and grand ethic/narrative,” so, in a more charitable interpretation, his definition can be limited to holistic and totalizing theories about the nature of human society.

Once again, however, this does little to make his initial list any less arbitrary or more coherent. Plenty of mainstream social justice critiques today, after all, quite visibly lack a class or materialist dimension and, in some cases, can be embraced by powerful institutions for that very reason. Corporate behemoths like Amazon are all too keen to adopt the regalia of social justice, but they’re definitely not trying to eliminate social hierarchy or create a classless society. In much the same way, plenty of centrist and liberal politicians who might endorse the broad idea of “intersectionality” would be loath to advocate anything beyond the most incremental and market-based reforms (and, in many cases, are deeply hostile to transformative policymaking of any kind).

Once again, there are reasons for that, and they have a lot to do with the retreat of structuralism and grand narratives, to say nothing of the collapse of transformative political projects in general. Those tendencies, and the vast spectrum of intellectual traditions that have come out of them, certainly still exist. But much of mainstream social justice politics today is quite specifically defined by its aversion to the totalizing theories and holistic explanations associated with modernism: emphasizing instead the dynamics of interpersonal relations, the mechanics of language, and the recognition of particular identities. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of these things, of course, but they hardly belong to an all-encompassing or utopian project.

Intellectual coherence, needless to say, is not a prerequisite for becoming a successful thinker or best-selling author. Peterson’s appeal, in fact, arguably comes down to his gift for making banal claims in language so opaque they scan as profound even as his actual meaning remains hazy. In debating Slavoj Zizek, the Right’s public intellectual du jour often sounded like a student who’d barely done the reading. (Peterson, it seemed, had prepared for the event by skimming the Communist Manifesto.) Regardless, there is a kind of intellectual dexterity afforded by this lack of rigor: the meanings of words and concepts (ironically) becoming so endlessly fluid and multiplicitous that they can be used in service of just about anything.

In this case, the result is a choose-your-own-adventure in which every right-wing grievance and perceived adversary can be projected onto a monolithic ideological bogeyman, no history, thought, or intellectual heavy-lifting required. What can you even say? We deserve a higher caliber of reactionary.